Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Characters of Life

People tell me things.

I don't really know why. To them I can't be anything more than a glassy-eyed twenty-something standing behind the counter waiting to ring them up and send them on their way. But they talk to me anyway. Maybe inside they think that I'm an unbiased listener. It's okay to talk to me because they don't really know me. And I, never having much to say, myself; just nod when they tell me their stories. I don't know how to respond to them with words other than "Uh-huh" and "Wow" and things like that. Our conversations are overwhelmingly one-sided. I'm like a sponge into which they pour out their hearts. Kind of odd, but I've always felt a little odd inside, so that's okay.

There's a woman who comes in from time to time. I'll call her Gloria. Gloria has always seemed a little batty to me. She's in her mid-fifties, dresses like a teenager, and frequently hums to herself. Sometimes she smells a bit like marijuana. (Don't ask me how I know what that smells like.) One day she came in and mentioned having been in the hospital, and I told her that I knew how expensive that could be, because I had recently had a miscarriage and incurred $3,000 worth of expenses for my 6-hour visit to the hospital. Gloria then proceeded to tell me, in her perpetually-chipper voice, that she had lost three babies of her own and had never been able to bear any live children. "One was in my tube," she said. "And I lost another at eight months. They had to turn the ultrasound screen away from me. I'm gonna be one busy mama in heaven."

I was rendered speechless. This batty woman had gone through so much loss, and I had always dismissed her as something of a nutcase.

Another time a family passing through from Colorado stopped in to use the restroom. There was a husband, a wife, and two daughters who were probably ten or twelve. While the others were using the bathroom, the husband noticed the copies of The Land Beyond the Portal sitting on the counter. (I sell them there.) I told him that I had written it, and that it was a Christian suspense novel. We got to chatting a bit, and he told me that his daughters' biological mother had abandoned them, saying that it was okay because God wouldn't judge her for it, or something along those lines. The husband was a single father for years until he met and married his current wife; the woman in the restroom.

They bought a copy of my novel and I signed it for them. Then they went along on their way. But I was thinking, Wow. How could a woman bear two children and suddenly decide to leave them behind? What is she doing now? What made her choose to leave?

Then, the other day, yet another regular told me her story. She made the comment that the Dollar General shouldn't be called that anymore since the prices are all going up, and I said something about how there couldn't be "Five and Dimes" anymore, either. Then the woman (whose name I've never learned even though I've seen her multiple times a week for six years, so I'll call her Mary) told me how she was the youngest of twelve children. Her family was so poor that she had never even received a birthday present until she was twelve years old, and the only reason she got one then is because she asked her mother to please get her one. Her mother went to the Five and Dime and bought her a bottle of perfume and a necklace, spending maybe twenty-five cents all together. Mary said she has always remembered that.

And it made me think: What did *I* get for my twelfth birthday? I can't tell you without grabbing out my photo album. (Runs to look at album...) Okay. I got a curling iron brush thing, some CDs, and a puzzle box. I never would have remembered if I hadn't written it down in the album. I just take things like birthday presents for granted. But Mary, who had never received a birthday present until that age, cherished her gifts so much that she still remembers what they were more than fifty years later.

I often refer to customers as "characters." It's a small town. We have The Conspiracy Theorist. We have the Drunks. We have the Creeps. We have Farmers and Rich People and Poor People and Pot Heads. It's so easy to stick people into a box based on our immediate perceptions of them. Often they seem like one-dimensional characters whom you might see in the background of a movie or novel. But when they open up and talk, I remember that they're as human as I am and have fascinating stories to tell that give me little glimpses of life that are very different from my own.

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